IF “I LOVE the smell of napalm in the morning” is Apocalypse Now’s most memorable line, the defining image of Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic is Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), face camouflaged, hair slicked back, emerging from misty, murky water in the rain to the guitar noodlings of The Doors’ ‘The End’. Surreal and hypnotic, it crystallises many of the film’s concerns: war is hell, the psychedelic nature of the Vietnam conflict, the blurring of civilised and animalistic behaviours, the subsuming quality of nature. It also seems to stand in for the director himself, emerging from chaos to impose order.
The origin of the shot lay in John Milius’ first draft of the screenplay, tinkered with by Coppola in a version dated December 1975. The script opens on a primeval swamp with the camera moving toward turgid water: “Suddenly, but quietly, a form begins to emerge: a helmet. Water and mud pour off revealing a set of beady eyes just above the mud. Printed on a helmet in a psychedelic hand are the words: ‘Gook Killer’.” As the film evolved on location in the Philippines — Apocalypse Now ultimately began with images of exploding napalm — the image got left behind until Coppola decided to resurrect the moment.
On 10 November 1976, shooting on Kurtz’s compound set in Pagsanjan, Coppola was frantically improvising Willard’s assassination of renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and decided on the spot Willard should emerge from primordial water. Production designer Dean Tavoularis pulled 25 labourers together to dig out a pond, dressing the set with shrubs and plants. The makeshift pool was ready to shoot in three hours.
If Sheen deserves kudos for his steely gaze under uncomfortable conditions — the set stank of rotting meat and was crawling with maggots— the hero of the shot is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. At once expressionistic and real, dream-like and nightmarish, it embodies Willard’s frame of mind — and his resolve to kill Kurtz — with more lucidity than reams of narration.
“He has to put on the colours of nature in order to become nature in order to enter nature and become Kurtz,” Storaro told Empire in 2001. “When he emerges from the water as a new human being, he has reverted to the barbarian level. The energy of the moment comes from this process of reversion.”
The image has become a shorthand for a return to nature, savagery and a form of primal madness. As such it has been co-opted by the diverse likes of Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ promo, Duckman (in an episode entitled ‘In The Nam Of The Father’), Xena: Warrior Princess, Independence Day, The Descent and most recently The Shape Of Water. But if you want to mainline the ‘horror, the horror’ of conflict, external and internal, the original is impossible to beat. IAN FREER
APOCALYPSE NOW IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD.